Escaping the Yorktown
Bryan A. Crisman
by Ronald Russell
(The following post is from the Battle of Midway Roundtable and originally appeared in Veterans Biographies, distributed during the annual Battle of Midway commemoration in San Francisco, June 2006)
As an economics student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1940, Bryan Crisman was intrigued by a notice posted at the university’s school of finance. The solicitation from the U.S. Navy’s Supply Corps promised college graduates a commission in the Naval Reserve. That sounded fine to Bryan, so he signed up and found himself called to active duty only a few months after graduation. After training at the Navy’s Supply Corps school, he initially served aboard USS Ranger (CV-4), then in September 1941 became the disbursing officer and “S” division officer on USS Yorktown (CV-5).
The Yorktown’s first major test in combat came in May 1942 in the Coral Sea, in which it suffered bomb damage from a Japanese air attack. But there was no respite upon returning to Pearl Harbor from that battle—the men worked feverishly to repair the damage and reprovision the ship for a another major operation. As the Yorktown left port, the crew was informed that they were going to take on an enormous Japanese invasion fleet headed for Midway.
As disbursing officer, Ensign Crisman’s assignment before leaving port had been to ensure enough cash was on hand to pay the crew upon arrival at Bremerton, Washington after the forthcoming action at Midway. The ship was slated for an overhaul to permanently repair its Coral Sea damage, and after more than three months away from the states, the men would have a lot of money due at Bremerton. Thus, before departure for Midway, Crisman had under his control over $500,000 in cash that was destined for the bottom of the sea. (That would be the equivalent of more than four million dollars in today’s money!)
Ensign Crisman’s battle station was at Flight Control in the island, which shook violently from three bomb hits as the Battle of Midway commenced. One of the bombs hit at the base of the island, sending billowing smoke into Flight Control. The ship came to a halt as the crew furiously worked to repair damage to the flight deck and get the boilers restarted. Crisman left his battle station at that point to retrieve the vital pay records from the disbursing office, deep in the ship. He bagged and secured them with 200 feet of line to prepare for lowering into a boat, then moved them to his stateroom, which was more accessible in an emergency. (Saving the crew’s pay records was deemed more important than saving the cash!)
He returned to Flight Control, but the ship was struck again by aerial torpedoes, prompting the captain to give the “abandon ship” order. Crisman gathered the bagged pay records and proceeded toward his abandon ship station when he noticed three Marines isolated at their gun mount due to damage to the catwalk at the edge of the flight deck. The catwalk had been peeled up by a torpedo blast, leaving the men no way to exit their battle station. Sacrificing the vital pay records, he threw his 200-foot line to the Marines, tying off one end so that they could free themselves.
Now without his pay records or his line, he encountered an unconscious sailor in a squadron ready room, still alive. With the aid of another officer, the two carried the sailor to the fantail and lowered him into the sea where a third rescuer got him aboard a raft and eventually to safety on a destroyer. Crisman finally lowered himself into the oily water, and after four hours of swimming in a life jacket that was gradually losing its buoyancy, he was taken aboard the USS Anderson (DD-411), along with about 200 other Yorktown survivors. He eventually returned to Pearl Harbor aboard USS Fulton (AS-11). And as for his all-important pay records? The salvage crew aboard the Yorktown wisely rescued them two days later, transferring them for safekeeping to the destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412), tied up alongside. A short while later the Hammann and the Yorktown’s pay records slipped beneath the waves, the result of a Japanese submarine attack!
Crisman continued to serve in Supply Corps billets for the rest of the war and at its end was the supply officer for the U.S. embassy in London. Eventually promoted to lieutenant commander, he left the Navy in 1956 to commence a long career in real estate.